There was industrial action planned for Thursday of this week: an NHS staff walkout at 9am lasting until 9pm, to make the point (again) that NHS staff deserve the 1% increase recommended by an independent review. Plans then followed for another walkout on the 25th February lasting 24 hours, with almost a month of working to rule in between these two days of actions.
This planned industrial action was cancelled only days before it was due to take place, when a “breakthrough” was negotiated in terms of pay, causing the strikes to be called off to allow union members to decide if they can accept the offer on the table.
I feel a bit weird saying this but I was relieved when the action was called off. I was glad that there was finally discussion happening around pay, an acknowledgement of the need for change, but it was more than that.
The first day of action was planned for my last day on placement in what was deemed an “essential service” (therefore exempt from participating in the strike) but as a student not counted in the numbered staff making up minimum staffing levels, I felt my status was less certain. I couldn’t let myself off the hook. Not because anyone was pressuring me to participate – my suggestion that I would was met with surprise – but because of pressure I put on myself. I was tying myself up in knots to work out how I could support this action without jeopardising my placement, as it was crucial I worked the day of the strike both in terms of hours and in terms of an assessment taking place that day, but my deeply held desire not to cross the picket line made it a difficult choice. I was lucky to have supportive mentor who was accepting of whatever decision I made, but perhaps luckier still that the strike was called off before I had to choose between my principles and my academic progression. I didn’t have to decide, and I am still not sure what I would have decided.
All this gets me thinking to what stands between us and the things we want to do, or the versions of ourselves we want/need to be. Each time a strike is announced I find myself thinking “if only everyone went on strike this time, imagine how much more quickly this issue could be resolved!” but then I remember it’s not that simple. There are many reasons people can’t (or feel they can’t) strike, and no one individual should be made to feel responsible for the action’s success – or ‘failure’. They did not ask to be put in a position where they either accept the unacceptable working conditions on offer, or stick their neck out. We can’t know the individual decision-making process people undertake when deciding whether to participate in industrial action or not. And we also can’t know the factors they are taking into account – their work culture, their financial situation (because for those on the payroll, striking means losing pay), whether their relationship with their team and manager is supportive, whether they are out at work about their politics… not to mention the additional considerations to take into account before standing on a picket line (because I would argue it’s somewhat of a privilege to have health that enables you to stand outside for four hours in winter making a point).
What we can do is ask of the people not yet able to stand in solidarity (and I count myself as potentially one of those people this last week) – “what would enable you to make a different choice?”.
For me, there is also an element of needing to acknowledge the confines of being a student midwife within the NHS, and they way this limits our options. A good friend of mine recently compared being a student midwife to being a teenager, in that it is a time when we experience the combination of overwhelming, overblown emotions with the realisation that we have very little say in how things can turn out. This certainly feels true to me.
However It also means I will continue to grow beyond this point. It is a necessarily temporary stage. I will not be a student midwife forever.